CULTURE

Mythological atlas led by Homer, Pausanias

Pedro Olayia climbed mountains, forded rivers and trampled through mud in the company of Pausanias and Homer. In the space of six years, he traveled 100,000 kilometers (62,000 miles) from one end of Greece to the other in search of sites recorded in myth, at first «just for the excitement of discovery,» he said. «Whoever travels knows that all places are basically what you put into them,» Olayia believes. Gradually, what began as a sensual and spiritual adventure became a complex plan to map Greek mythology. «In the fall of 1995 I took to the road and to old texts with a desire to see one day the kind of book that I as a reader wanted to have in my hands: an atlas with the most accurate maps possible of the present-day landscape, with the exact locations of scenes from mythology superimposed.» Now all those romantic, solitary trips have resulted in a large volume, perhaps like the one Olayia would like to have had. «The Mythological Atlas of Greece» was published a few weeks ago by Road Publishers, who specialize in travel books, and it offers something that was never available before: a kaleidoscope in map form of the places and characters of Greek mythology. It is a detailed record of every topographical reference in ancient texts. Every site has been photographed by the writer and linked to mythological characters and ancient sources. The stories of 700 people and myths, fragmented and scattered among the works of more than 100 ancient writers, are brought together again in a new narrative. A Spaniard born in Oviedo, Olayia is a permanent resident of Athens and speaks perfect Greek. A highly educated Hellenist who has contributed to Greek-Spanish cultural relations, he is working painstakingly on a research project which seems to be developing into a lifelong work. He speaks about a «suspended» Greece, which belongs to all the West, and which comes down to us through the works of writers and artists from ancient times to the Renaissance and beyond. Traveling around Greece with the ancient texts and his camera, Olayia sees ancient ruins and broken marble whose poetic melancholy prompts an emotional response. «Their ruin is their greatest savior nowadays,» says Olayia. «It forgives any arrogance they once possessed, and releases them forever from immediacy, leaving eternal mystery.» On a scholarship from the Onassis Foundation, Olayia used maps from the Geographical Service to unravel the genealogical tree of mythological characters. «I had to place them in time, by house and family, as the ancients did, in order to comprehend their historical dimension.» The journey of the Argonauts (1225 BC) and the fall of Troy (1184 BC) provided a chronological basis. «Bit by bit, 500 names from Greek mythology went into place.» There were some moving discoveries. «It was a great temptation to find some place which Western art had imagined but which Pausanias had actually seen: the cave where Heracles strangled the lion, or the spring where the hapless Actaeon surprised Artemis and the nymphs while bathing.» The ancient texts provided the guidelines. The Greek landscape gradually came to life in the map, and at some points coincided completely with the topography. «I particularly remember the two times I was waiting impatiently beside the tripod to photograph the two dawns which Homer described: one when Telemachus arrives in the bay of Pylos, and the other when Odysseus awakes distressed on a beach on Ithaca.» For Olayia, the words of Homer and the sight of the real places interconnect. The same thing «happened repeatedly,» he says, «with the descriptions by Pausanias and Herodotus and the visions of Heraclitus. In each case a dialogue was recreated, with «voices that were not at all foreign.» This contact with living, palpable, shared memory, contributed to what was almost a religious experience. The atlas is a reference work, a guide to another, equally real Greece, a channel of communication with a world that provides a fresh self-awareness.